There was the monkey, and the German women, and the French man who stole my suitcase, and, of course, the bus driver who put the pedal to the metal or I might not even have made the plane. I close my eyes, the day flashes behind my lids, a silent movie, black and white giving way to vivid colors and then fading to a hazy blur. The film's title could be Expat, the story of leaving where I finally fit, home at last among all the other strays and travelers.
If we were going out tonight, Nicole, Zabeth, and me, les trois jolies femmes, our apartment would be a haze of perfume and a clothesline worth of outfits tried on as we decided what to wear, laughing as we shoved each other aside for mirror time. But if they are hitting the town tonight, it is without me. In the course of one day, my year in France has turned into a painted story, a picture book I can look at later in bed. The Sweetgum tree will still guard my window. In bed, in the dark, car lights will sweep past and I will track them across my daisy-strewn wallpaper and feel the height and width of the house, feel the walls around me. Know that terrible quiet of a sleeping house when you can't sleep, electricity in your veins.
Maybe I should start where I ended up, here in hot water, not my usual kind, but in real hot water, sudsy and soothing, bubbles disguising my chin with a fake beard as I sink down in the tub. Below, I can hear the small welcoming party meant for me, just relatives, all of whom assured my mother, as she led me upstairs, that it was perfectly fine that they drove an hour over to greet me two days in a row. I was escorted past them like a celebrity trying to be anonymous.
My mother ran a bubble bath in the tub in the bright yellow hall bathroom rather than in the master bath in my parent's room. Here, in the top of the stairs bathroom that my sister and I use, I hope no one has to pee. There is no bathroom downstairs. This was not a deliberate act of aggression against the relatives I am sure; it has been a trying day for my mother, and she appears to be running on automatic. Otherwise, there would have been the lecture I expected, how I carelessly mixed up the days and gave them the wrong itinerary, how they waited yesterday for a plane at LaGuardia that never came. How the relatives had to go back to Jersey, how she had to saran wrap the cake, reading the clear message from my aunt's pursed expression, you let that girl run wild and whose fault is that, sending her off at seventeen for a year alone in a strange country.
I called from the airport pay phone in my new fake voice, the one even I know is obnoxious but cannot convince my tongue not to do, so many inflections and pauses and a murmuring of French words. All my native words sound alien to me.
"Come pick me up," I said, listening to my mother's voice rise as she detailed yesterday's wait and worry. How she was absolutely sick with concern and my father was beside himself. I felt a frisson of that worried kind of fear and frustration I have not had to deal with for a year with an ocean between us. "I'm sorry,” I said, "I'm here now." I sat on my suitcase smoking the last of my Gauloise, to wait the hour or more it would take for them to drive from Larchmont to the airport, the events of the day running through my mind in an exhausting loop.
We were up before dawn, hung over from the goodbye party the night before, too much cassis and who knows what else, Zabeth rescuing me with her usual thoughtfulness, volunteering to walk me up to the Viotte Station, a relief considering my giant suitcase, the smaller one, my usual big purse, and a large paper shopping bag where I had tossed the overflow. I was low on money from poor planning, so a cab was not an option. There was a light drizzle complicating everything.
Gold and rose colored streaks offered a faint challenge to the gray sky as we walked so quickly up the hill that our breath came out in short bursts, making conversation difficult. When the shopping bag broke, its contents spilling into the gutter, Zabeth and I scrambled to grab handfuls of mementos: drink coasters from a favorite club, postcards of favorite places, a restaurant ashtray I stole, black and white art prints I had found in a thrift store, my watercolors, my poetry books, farewell cards, and silly gifts. We opened up the large suitcase and smashed stuff in where nothing could really fit, the two of us sitting on it to snap it shut. Whatever had rolled down the hill into freshly forming puddles we left, late now, running for the train.
Aching legs, aching arms, aching heart, with no time to ease any of it; purchasing the ticket I had meant to do days before. The train rumbled into life, the porter shouted Vite, Vite! Hurry, Hurry! oddly trying to block me from jumping on to the last car, Zabeth throwing the heavy bags on the back metal platform of the caboose as the train lurched forward. Zabeth, face shining up to me like a white lily, my sweet friend from a small country village who found the small city life of Besancon thrilling. Her face was wet with rain and tears and I yelled Au Revoir. She is one of the kindest people I have ever met and we will write a few letters and then we will lose touch. Au Revoir, Au Revoir!
I forced open the heavy door of the caboose and a stout woman tried to turn me away. Where was I to go? Behind us only the receding railway tracks with Besancon telescoping into an out of focus dot. I ignored her argument by refusing to listen to it. I pushed past her, shoving the larger suitcase with one foot, carrying the smaller one and my purse, when I realized that the car was full of special needs people and their caretakers. There was someone posted at each door and several other caretakers were trying to calm down what seemed like far too many troubled people in one train car. As I made my way through, hands reached out to touch me, bodies pressed against me; excited high-pitched words were tipped into my ears. I was patted like a favorite doll. My small suitcase was grabbed, and I took it back, holding on firmly, which meant I could not fend off the hands. I refused to look upset, years of manners drummed into me, smoothing my face into a polite mask, as I forced myself to stay calm, caretakers and patients careening about me, a babble of chaos, hands stroking and grasping as I pushed my large suitcase with my foot, one short shove at a time, as I guarded my other bag and purse. It was not good, but it was brief. Besides, my mind was still back with Zabeth waving goodbye. There were worse things than being the moment's entertainment.
I was very grateful to note the other cars did not seem to offer the same level of complication, except that they were mostly full. I made my long slog down the aisles, looking into the windowed compartments for an empty seat. In the last car, an older man looked up from his newspaper and with swift, gentlemanly zeal, stood and opened the door for me. While my friends were mostly a few years older than me, he was at least fifty, and I was surprised he invited conversation, complimenting my French. I felt some of the tension of the morning ease off my shoulders.
We talked of the weather, places I had visited. He knew the Food Festival in Dijon; he agreed the flea markets in Paris were Incroyable, incredible, as well. He told me amusing travel stories about Germany and Italy, and during one animated story he entwined my name, Alison, into his words. I knew I did not tell him my name. I felt the familiar alertness that comes to me in situations that seem to hint at some level of peril stir and waken.
"How do you know my name?" I asked him.
He hesitated, and I sensed the same alertness in him. His eyes flickered up to the luggage rack. "I saw it on your suitcase tags when I helped you lift them to the rack." His voice took on that slightly wounded, how could I have doubted him, tone. I knew this game. I smiled and moved my purse into my lap as if I wanted to rest my arms on it. I leaned my head back against the leather seat; his shoulders relaxed again. I let him talk about things I could ignore and wished I had not shared that I would be changing trains at Alsace- Lorraine. He used my name again, this time with a small smile that held too much familiarity that said he felt I had given him this permission.
"C'est curieux," I said, "it is interesting, but I don't think I have my name written on my luggage tags." I watched his face stiffen. It was time to go.
I stood up, my purse guarding the front of me, but there was a dilemma, the suitcases large and small, on the rack above me. I swung them down one at a time, quickly, aiming towards him, so he could not advance. He was talking loudly, quickly, so many words. He had watched me for months, he knew where I lived, the Cafe Granville and Le Club Cave where I hung out, he named some of my friends, Nils, Zeki, Brielle, Zabeth, Meggie. His face was shining with urgency as he pushed forward to hold the door of our compartment shut. I must understand this, my coming on the train, into his compartment, was a sign, after all this time of admiring me from afar, he now knew we really were meant to be together.
Yeah. He was batshit crazy and, sadly, I was not surprised. I seem to put out some sort of signal, if you have major issues, I'm your girl. At least he did not try to grab me or hurt me; he was still caught up in his delusion that he could persuade me to understand his viewpoint. I was not under any delusion, myself, that there was much chance of help from outside sources. After getting mugged in France with my friend, Brielle, along with more than a handful of interesting and nerve-wracking situations, I had learned to rely on my own resourcefulness. How the police at the station smiled indulgently at Bri when we reported the mugging. How they had asked where we were from—Canada and America—and said to me, you are from New York and yet you complain about our streets? They had no use for the problems of the étudiants at the Universite de Besancon, especially students like Brielle and me of the foreign variety.
We were standing; he was talking. I was looking up and down the aisle, hoping a porter would come past or a brawny American student. I knew better to hope, but that is my life story, I hope anyway. The train rounded a curve and pulled into the station at Alsace- Lorraine. He had to reach up for his own suitcase on the rack above the seats. I opened the door and shoved my big suitcase into the frame, keeping the door open. I kicked it hard and l jumped after it into the line of people exiting the train. I could hear him call out, Alison! Alison! But I knew what he did not, and I made my way left into the press of the special needs group getting off the train in not very orderly rows. Ah, their pet was back. I lost myself in their happy confusion, the matrons shouting and red-faced, and I cut through to the station. My would-be, deranged suitor was nowhere in sight. I bought my ticket for Luxembourg and tried to hang against the walls of the building hoping I would not be seen.
There were a lot of travelers; I heard French and German predominantly, some Italian, but no English. I couldn't help but smile at a group of hefty German women, in their sixties or so, wearing the kind of dresses grandmothers wear, shapeless prints matched with sturdy dark shoes. In their midst, on a leash, was a small monkey dressed in baby girl clothes, and she was clearly the darling of their group. I watched them settle at one of the small cafe tables and enjoy the sun that had broken through the clouds. They fed the monkey a cookie, breaking off little bits at time. The monkey climbed from lap to lap, eliciting coos and laughter. I didn't notice until he was right before me, my train companion, his face set in a determined, stern expression. He was dismayed I did not understand this most important thing about our need to be together. He took my large suitcase in hand, and told me I was coming with him, and started walking away. I had no idea what to do.
I ran after him, and yelled at him to give me back my suitcase; I struggled to remove his hand from the handle, and he grabbed my arm and dragged me along with him. My other suitcase was behind me; my purse fell off my shoulder. I could not get out of his grip. I yelled, and I pummeled him. There was something in his eyes that told me not to stop, even though I was not winning, not even slightly.
And they were upon him. Five fat German ladies pushing him off of me, making him let go of my suitcase, hitting him over and over with their enormous pocketbooks while the monkey screamed excitedly behind them. The man held up his arms to protect his face; he stumbled backwards; they continued their assault. He let me go when the first purse connected with his head. I stood by the monkey, watching my rescuers with awe and wonder. He took off running, his dark suit a little blot down the road under the full glory of the sun. I was shaking, and still trying to process what just happened, when the German ladies gathered me up in their midst. I found myself at their table, my luggage and purse retrieved, drinking a coffee someone bought for me, eating a cookie as the monkey ate hers, her head tilted, looking at me with great curiosity. I didn't know what to say to them besides a simple Danke, thank you, over and over.
During my train ride to Luxembourg, I stared out the window and thought I should try to work my mind like a camera to remember the green crayoned smear of passing trees, the fleecy sheep in a field gone in a wink. I was too tired and upset from my encounter to think anything beyond that. I didn't even realize that the train was running late, but when I got to Luxembourg, the bus I needed had already left. I got on the next small airport bus, but it was clear to me that I would not get to the airport on time. I would miss my flight and have to figure out what to do, where to stay, with very little money, hardly enough for a sandwich, having bought two train tickets, a bus ticket, and apparently a lot of rounds for my friends the night before. The bus driver was taking a leisurely approach to driving his bus to the airport and did not appear moved by my explanation that I would miss my flight if he did not drive faster. He was not French, but he might as well have been with the slight shrug he gave in response to my concern about time.
It was all suddenly too much for me. I started to babble about the man, the monkey, the women, the rain, my lack of money, my mementos in the gutter, leaving France, which was breaking my heart since I knew I would not be coming back anytime soon. I had an audience of bored and edgy people sitting on the bus, with little to do but watch the passing scenery before they got to the airport, paying rapt attention to me.
Come on, help her out, someone said in French. Yes, she must make her plane, called out a woman. You can get her there on time, added in a third. Everyone was rallying for me on this bus, and the driver looked up and flashed a grin at me. His day had suddenly become interesting. We careened through the streets with our driver being cheered on by his supportive passengers. We made it there in what must have been record time, and everyone cheered. I would have taken their photographs if my camera hadn't been stolen at the Dijon Youth Hostel by a bunch of boys climbing through the window in the middle of the night. But that's another story.
The plane ride was much the same back as it was going over. I was flying Icelandic Air. Once again, during the brief stopover in Iceland, I stared out the airport windows at the smoky mist over the mountains and told myself, someday, I would come back and walk there. I admired expensive sweaters in their duty free shop. I spent my last money on a coffee and a roll.
At LaGuardia, I waited for my parents to arrive. We do not have an easy relationship, and it was probably just as much a relief for them to see me off for a year as it was for me. No. It was better for me, I thought, doing a quick review of my previous 18 years in my head. Still, I missed the late night hot chocolate chats with my Mom, the customs of our home, like big mugs of tea, the stacks of books and magazines, my mother playing piano, even the big tree outside my bedroom window. I waited for them, exhausted and impatient, hoping things would be better now, hoping they could see how I had become a woman of the world in our year apart, sophisticated, perhaps a bit European like my foreign born Father. I had kohl rimmed eyes, and I sensed everyone walking by, and no one was familiar. I wound my long hair up in a twist, paced, wondered what was taking them so long. I prepared something to say to them, something a bit aloof, adult, so they would realize we were on different footing now. Where were they? And then a hand on my shoulder, and I turned, and it was my mother, her face alight with love and happiness. I burst into tears. I was appalled at myself, but I could not stop crying until we were in the car, and, even then, I was snuffling and nodding off, rocked by a depth of exhaustion and emotion I did not understand, still don't understand.
I listen to the hum of my relatives talking downstairs and think I need to get out of this bubble bath soon and free up the bathroom. I hold my breath and close my eyes and slide under the surface, the sounds of the house distorted by the water, and for a moment I am no place at all.